New Questions and Answers

Q. Dear CMOS Editors, Although strict grammar would suggest that “if I had been you, I wouldn’t have done that” is correct, I feel that using “if I had been you” in this case instead of “if I were you” implies that the condition of my being you is impossible only in the past and may somehow have become more possible as time went on. Because it is not a changeable condition—I cannot be you, whether in the past or the present—I feel that “if I were you” is the right conditional to use in this example. I have not been able to find an authoritative explanation either way. What do you reckon?

A. This isn’t philosophy—it’s just grammar. “If I were you” puts the reader in the present. If you want to stage “if I were you” in the past, it becomes “if I had been you.”

Q. “The larger the parameter, the smaller the region.” This construction is just fine, but what’s the justification for implied rather than fully present verbs? Why don’t we get to imply parts of speech whenever we want to? And as an editor, am I wrong to delete the verbs when they are used? “The larger the parameter is, the smaller is the region”?

A. You are right to delete the verbs. Your first version is idiomatic English; the second is pedantic overkill. As for your whys and wherefores, I’m afraid you will need a linguist rather than a style guide to get the technical backstory. Let us know what you find out!

Q. How does one cite a periodical that is mislabeled by the original publisher? I have an issue of a trade journal labeled volume 24, but it should be volume 23. Thank you for your help.

A. Put the volume number in square brackets [23] to imply that it is being supplied for some reason by the writer. To be perfectly clear, you could write “vol. 23; mislabeled as vol. 24.”

Q. In a sentence like “the authors thank Natalie and Isabel for her editorial assistance,” is it grammatically correct to use the pronoun her and not their?

A. If the authors intend to thank both Natalie and Isabel for assistance, then their is the right choice. However, if the sentence means “The authors thank Natalie [for something other than assistance, but we aren’t saying what] and [we also thank] Isabel for her assistance,” then even if it is technically grammatical (debatable), it is nonetheless confusing. (Correct grammar does not mean everything’s OK. “Striped sentences wish green habits” is grammatical.) In short, your sentence is a disaster and must be rewritten for clarity.

Q. Is it equally acceptable to say “My friends and I went to the concert” and “I and my friends went to the concert”?

A. No; the second construction is popular but not yet considered proper.

Q. Is it correct to say, “The cost of the widget is 300 percent of its counterpart”? I’m wondering if this should be “The cost of the widget is 300 percent more than its counterpart.”

A. “Percent of” means something different from “percent more than.” It might be easier to understand if you use a different number: 50 percent of 100 people equals 50 people, whereas 50 percent more than 100 people equals 150 people. So although I can’t tell you the answer without knowing the cost of the widget and the cost of its counterpart, “300 percent of the cost” means three times the cost; “300 percent more than the cost” means the cost plus 300 percent of the cost (cost times 4). Since many people don’t know the difference, avoid those expressions and say exactly what you mean (e.g., “costs three times as much” or “costs $850 more than”).

Q. I’m a book publisher editing a memoir by a physician who served in the military, and most of the individuals described in the memoir are also military physicians. The first time our narrator mentions another military physician, we might say, “The commander of the base was Dr. Sherman Potter, a Navy captain.” Then, in subsequent references, we are using just “Potter.” These doctors called each other only by their last names in conversation, so continuing to say “Dr. Potter” in the text would feel overly formal and would not be parallel with the dialogue. However, it feels overly casual to immediately switch to “Potter” from “Dr. Sherman Potter.” Is it crazy and overly complicated to suggest that first references remain “Dr. Sherman Potter,” the second reference be to “Dr. Potter,” and the third and subsequent references be merely to “Potter”? I am, of course, in a huge hurry to solve this extraordinary important issue in my life and your rescue is greatly appreciated.

A. In a memoir, the writer is usually the best person to be in charge of what people are called. (Consistency in such a matter is something only an editor would come up with.) A person might call a young colleague “Jones” but an esteemed elderly mentor “Dr. Potter.” Likewise, the writer might not want to introduce every character by a full name on first mention. He might not even want to reveal that a person is a doctor on first mention. These are nuances that an editor must respect. Use your judgment to query anything in this regard that strikes you as out of whack. That should be enough. (And while you’re at it, better double-check whether Dr. Potter is actually an army colonel!)

Q. I need help with the placement of double, single, double quotes in a short quotation (it can’t be an extract, which would solve the problem nicely). Here’s the sentence: “This book uses Alfred North Whitehead’s definition of concrescence as ‘the name for the process in which the universe of many things acquires an individual unity in a determinate relegation of each item of the “many” to its subordination in the constitution of the novel “one.”’” I feel like that last bit can’t possibly be correct: it’s double quotes around the last word (one), followed by the single quote mark that closes the inner quote, followed by the double quote mark that closes the outer quote. You say . . . ?

A. Believe it or not, that’s right! However, instead of using a block quotation, it’s often possible to avoid quotation mark pileups by paraphrasing the framing quotation: Her book adopts Alfred North Whitehead’s definition of concrescence: “the name . . .”

Q. Would you consider creating a rule about the capitalization of wine varietals? In my dictionary Chablis is capitalized, cabernet sauvignon and merlot are lowercase but “often capitalized,” prosecco is lowercase, barbera is lowercase. I edit a lot of books containing wine names, including one book solely about wine varietals, and there does not appear to be an industry-specific source.

A. We appreciate your confusion. Although CMOS isn’t likely to take on the task of “wine casing,” William Safire once devised a reasonable system you might be able to use.

Q. I’m wondering how you would handle a possessive of a city-and-state combination: While we were able to recast the sentence, suppose we need to express “the streets of Anytown, New York” as compactly as possible. “Anytown, New York’s, streets” puts the possessive squarely on “New York” because of the necessary comma—and you couldn’t do the logical “Anytown, New York,’s streets” as if the commas were parentheses! Or do we just bite the bullet and have an even longer sentence?

A. Yes—please—bite the bullet.

July Q&A

Q. Do you use a or an before a word that begins with the letter S?

A. If the S is pronounced with a hissing sound (“sss”), use a: a snack. If the S is pronounced as the letter S (“ess”), use an: an SVGA cable.

Q. I’m hoping you can clarify the meaning of this line in 8.22: “Queen Elizabeth; Elizabeth II; the queen (in a British Commonwealth context, the Queen).” What counts as a “British Commonwealth context”? I’m editing a novel that takes place in the UK but refers to a meeting between the sovereigns of the UK and another country. Should these be styled as “the Queen” and “the king,” or “the queen” and “the king”?

A. If you are editing a novel for a UK publisher primarily for UK readers, or a novel that takes place in the UK with characters or a narrator who wouldn’t dream of lowercasing their queen, uppercasing is appropriate. For consistency, you would style all kings and queens in that document in the same way.

Q. I’m alphabetizing a list of schools for a journal of children’s prose and poetry. Do I alpha-order a school with The as the first word under T, or do I use the first significant word? E.g., The Hun School: T or H?

A. You can do it either way, but in many cases, alphabetizing under The isn’t very helpful. Often a reader might not even know whether a name starts with The.

Q. Some guidance, please, on the use of (s) to indicate that a noun may be singular or plural, as in “The manager will interview the candidate(s).” I use the plural candidates to indicate there is at least one candidate but have been getting pushback from authors who ask for the source of my decision.

A. Although we aren’t crazy about the (s) solution, we do use it at times in CMOS. Another solution is to write “candidate or candidates,” but that’s a little clunky. Simply using the plural is often a good solution, but if it gives the wrong impression (e.g., that if there’s only one candidate, someone other than the manager will interview), then avoid it in favor of clarity.

Q. I am writing a book on a movement practice called Authentic Movement that distinguishes those in the role of movers and those in the role of witnesses. Should the words Mover and Witness be capitalized since they have a specialized meaning in this context? And if so, should they be capitalized in just the first usage, or throughout the entire book?

A. Chicago style lowercases words like these. If your goal is to promote Authentic Movement into franchises or some other commercial use, then caps might be appropriate. But in normal contexts, even if these words denote practitioners of Authentic Movement, they are still common nouns (not proper nouns) with no need for capitalization.

Q. At work I was questioned about the use of numerals versus words in the following sentence: “Table 7 reports the number of cases in which individual debtors filed for protection under Chapter 13 and stated on Official Form 1 that they had filed a case during the preceding eight years.” I had previously explained to this person that if you use numerals for a number greater than 10 in one part of a sentence, you should also use numerals for other similar numbers in that sentence that normally would be spelled out. When she read the sentence cited above, she asked why the second-to-last word (eight) wasn’t replaced with a numeral (8), given that I had used numerals earlier in that sentence. I explained that the other numerals were part of the title of a table, bankruptcy law chapter, and form, so they weren’t in the same category as the last number and thus did not require me to write “8 years.” Am I correct?

A. Yes, you are correct. However, when every number in a paragraph is a numeral except one, sometimes it’s a good strategy to change that one to a numeral as well so readers don’t get distracted by it or doubt your competence. It’s called “regional consistency.”

Q. Grüezi. How do I handle cf. in combination with e.g. in a citation? Combining the usual rules yields (cf., e.g., XYZ 2014). However, that looks very clumsy to me. Therefore I have two distinct propositions which I’d be very grateful to be verified: (A) The CMoS seems to support eg., so: “(cf. eg. XYZ 2014)”? (B) From unofficial sources, I find cfeg., therefore “(cfeg. XYZ 2014)”?

A. You got it right the first time: (cf., e.g., XYZ 2014). Clear and correct.

Q. I know semicolons are mandated for complicated lists. But is a complicated list defined only as a list containing commas within the items in the list?

A. Although items in a complicated series may well contain commas, the items can be complicated in other ways—for instance, they might have dashes or parentheses or a series of nouns connected by and or or.

Q. Is it OK to greet someone with “Morning!” or is it “’Morning!”? I’d think that it’s common understanding that you’re saying “Good morning” and not just shouting the time of day at someone.

A. An apostrophe means that letters are missing from a word, not that a word is missing from a phrase. Since “Good morning” is a two-word phrase, there is no reason to use an apostrophe in front of “Morning.” I agree that the phrase is easy to understand in its short form. In a context where it could be confused with shouting the time of day at someone (I like your way of putting it), it would be better to include “Good.”

Q. I’m writing an email to academics, selling a product offered “24/7, 365-days a year.” Should I write “24-hours a day, 365-days a year”? (The word year appears at the end of my sentence.) I am stumped with the slashes (/) and the hyphens. Thank you for your time and help!

A. You don’t need any hyphens, and it’s always nice to be consistent in your styling. So either “24/7, 365 days/year” or “24 hours a day, 365 days a year.” Hyphens come into play when you use a phrase like that to modify something else (our 365-days-a-year service) or when you use it in place of a noun (an eighty-four-year-old).

Q. Does this dedication need correction? “This book is dedicated to my kids, who I’m crazy about” or “This book is dedicated to my kids, whom I’m crazy about”?

A. You could leave who as it is, but whom is more appropriate for a book dedication, even though it might look stuffy in other contexts. The preposition at the end is just fine, however.

Q. Hi, I wanted to ask how quotation marks would be used for a timing, for example, John Cage’s 4’3”. Because this features both single and double quotation marks, how would I quote it? Would it be ‘4’33”’ or “4’33””? Thanks in advance.

A. Confusion abounds here because minute and second marks are not quotation marks. Minute and second marks are straight and slanted (use the prime and double prime symbols: 4′33″); quotation marks are either curly (“4”) or straight but vertical ("4"). You can use quotation marks around minute and second expressions as you would any other quoted text, but if the typography gets ugly, paraphrase instead of quoting, and spell out minutes and seconds.

Q. Can we start a sentence with But?

A. Yes—it’s perfectly grammatical. (But watch out for sticklers who haven’t read a grammar book since they were in high school!)